Daron Malakian: 21st Century Schizoid Man
Mezmerize/Hypnotize was recorded at Rubin’s famed “haunted mansion” in the Hollywood Hills. “Some weird stuff did happen,” Malakian confirms. “Every day around five o’clock my amps would take a shit. Same time every day, this weird noise came out of my amp. We’d check the tubes and everything, and it would all be fine. So it was a little strange there, especially when you went downstairs into the laundry room. You go down these small, winding steps, and it was kinda dark and cold down there. Creepy. But I like creepy. I have skulls all over my house.”
The spirits didn’t prevent Malakian from achieving the guitar sound he had in mind. “I really wanted the strings on the guitar to be heard,” he says. “That was important. The guitar should sound like a string instrument. Some people want their guitar to sound like a keyboard, or they put a lot of effects on it.”
Malakian’s main guitar for distorted tones was a 1962 Gibson SG through a 100-watt Marshall JMP100 amp and a single 4x12 cab. One channel of the Marshall is stock, but the second has been modified for extra gain. This very basic rig was recorded via an unusual room-miking technique.
“I got to thinking, when you play an acoustic guitar, the sound comes out of the guitar,” Malakian explains. “So why in recording rooms does the sound always have to bounce off the walls? Why don’t we bounce it off more guitars? So I basically covered a whole wall with acoustic guitars, from ceiling to floor. We pointed the speaker cabinet toward this wall of guitars and set up a room mic. The resonance came out of the guitars and back into the microphone. In most cases we muted the strings of the guitars on the wall, so we got the resonance from the body but not actual notes from the strings. And that gave us a very cutting sound, which is what I wanted.”
Along with the 1962 SG, Malakian also used a Jackson Randy Rhoads Flying V retrofitted with humbuckers and two early Eighties Gibson Korina Flying Vs for distorted tones. But the SG was his favorite by far, in part because the guitar’s distinctive “sideways” tremolo arm system endows the tone with some of the trebly cut that was so important to Malakian on this project. “I like that tremolo system, not for the tremolo but for the way it makes the guitar resonate,” he says. “It makes it sound more metallic, which helps the sound of the guitar, in my opinion.”
High-end definition was so important this time, Malakian explains, “because some of the music on the album is faster and more intricate than anything we’ve done in the past. So I really wanted the attack of the notes to be heard. We even tuned the guitars a little higher than we have in the past. Usually we would tune down a whole step, to D, with the low string down an additional whole step to C [low to high: C, G, C, F, A, D]. But for this album we’re in D sharp with a dropped C sharp [low to high: C#, G#, C#, F# A#, D#], and even that half-step-higher tuning makes a big difference. A lot of people want the guitar to sound muddier. On Toxicity I was more into a bottomy type of sound. But not this time. As time goes on I find I’m getting closer to 440 [i.e., standard tuning]. Lately I’ve been playing a lot in 440.”
Malakian’s string gauges have changed accordingly: “In the early days of System I used very heavy-gauge strings. But for this album I went to .50 or .48 sets. I’ve used Ernie Ball strings ever since I was about 12 years old, because that’s what they sold at the local record store when I was a kid.”
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